Hampstead writer's death defying feat as he becomes first blind man to climb Old Man of Hoy
PUBLISHED: 09:00 02 July 2013
This month Hampstead crime author Red Szell fulfilled a lifelong dream and became the first blind man ever to climb The Old Man of Hoy - a towering 450ft pillar of rock in the Orkneys.
He has raised more than £11,000 for research into retinitis pigmentosa, the condition that robbed him of his sight. Here he tells all about the terrifying climb.
‘From the top of the promontory it was once the tip of, The Old Man of Hoy wasn’t so intimidating, but with each precarious step down the shattered cliff it grew, so by the time we were standing on the rockfall causeway that once formed its arch, the sea stack’s stated height of 450ft seemed an under-estimate.
What vision I have left is like looking into a smoke-filled room through a keyhole – I catch glimpses of parts of things and, if they don’t move, I can sometimes make them out, especially those at the lower end of the colour spectrum. The deep red of the Orcadian sandstone was the colour of dried blood, and just as static – it was breathtaking.
Martin, who was to lead the five pitches, set off first, the protection (the metal wedges and bolts he’d insert at intervals into cracks in the rock through which he’d run the rope to catch him should he fall) jangling at his belt like wind chimes.
After a quarter of an hour I felt three tugs on my rope, the sign that he was ready for me to climb. Sea birds wheeled around me as my fingers searched out the good holds, testing the strength of the slowly decaying rock, my feet seeking the cracks and features my hands had just used.
The second pitch is the crux – the hard one that decides whether you reach the summit or get thrown off. A slippery traverse down a narrow ledge with only an impossibly delicate flake of rock to hold onto as you bridge a two-foot wide void 150 feet above the pounding Atlantic; inching towards a bottomless chimney known as The Coffin – a name I only came to appreciate when I tried to get out from underneath the four foot deep overhang that forms its roof.
Jamming one arm into a wide crack above my head and wedging a foot on the sandy wall behind me I began to lever myself up and out. I flung out my free hand and groped for a decent hold, willing my aching muscles to defy the pull of gravity for a few more seconds. My foot started to slip, my heart was pounding and finally my fingers closed on a nubbin of rock. With a great heave I hauled myself out and over.
After that, the final three pitches were a joy and within an hour I was standing atop the most spectacular rock I have ever climbed – the first blind person to do so – a dream come true.’
* To support Red Szell and donate towards research into retinitis pigmentosa, visit www.justgiving.com/redszell/new/4.